Monday, April 29, 2013

Unforgiving Slopes

It's sad to hear that at least four people lost their lives in the mountains this last weekend. Three out of a party  of six that was hit by an avalanche on Nagano's Mt. Shirouma Saturday morning went missing; as of Sunday morning two of them had been found dead. Another man died on Mt. Yatsugatake on the Nagano-Yamanashi border, and yet another man was found dead Sunday morning at the seventh station of Mt. Fuji.

With Golden Week just begun, I'm afraid that there will be more mountain-climbing fatalities. As the weather warms up just in time for the multiple-holiday period, and many flowers start to bloom, a lot of people decide to go trekking and climbing. Unfortunately, the weather also tends to encourage avalanches as well as climbers, so many places can be  more dangerous than they look.

The fellow on Mt. Fuji was climbing pretty early: the official season is generally only the months of July and August. Police have said that he apparently slipped and hit his head. It's not clear whether the fall killed him or whether he died of exposure while unconscious, but this early in the season the paths are treacherous with ice even where there's no snow, and the temperatures that high on the mountain can get very low, indeed. Even in June or September, nighttime temperatures drop well below zero Celsius.  The winds can be strong, too, and change direction suddenly. That combined with tricky footing--it's not uncommon for ice to melt and then refreeze around sunset, leaving a sheet of ice with a thin covering of volcanic gravel atop it--can make it all too easy to lose your balance and slip, tumble, and very likely hit one of the boulders scattered around the slope. This early in the year, the mountain huts are all closed, so there's not much hope of either help or adequate shelter, so off-season climbing is very dangerous, indeed.

It sounds as if the Shirouma climbing party was just unlucky; you can't really prepare for or avoid an avalanche. In hindsight, perhaps they should have been more wary and chosen a different place to climb, but it probably looked safe enough at the time. Yatsugatake is still pretty cold this time of year, and although it's not as tough a climb as many other spots, nor usually considered as risky, I know the area fairly well and it wouldn't be a place I'd go climbing this early in the year, myself. Certainly I wouldn't go alone.

I wrote around this time last year about Golden Week climbing accidents, in summer of 2009 about climbing accidents increasing, and elsewhere about the risks of climbing Mt. Fuji. The high country is beautiful, and trekking or climbing are really fun, but one has to be prepared, and sometimes even then things can go badly awry.

One can't live in fear, and avoiding all risks would make life rather too tame in my opinion, but at least I hope that this year I won't hear about any more mountain climbing deaths due to insufficient preparation or bad judgement.

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